Monday, July 18, 2016

To Skin a--What?

Over the course of your friendship with the late John Sanford (1904-2003), you fell into the habit, when meeting him by accident, of quoting the opening phrase of the first sentence of a book, which was more than a book, written by a medical doctor who was more than a medical doctor.


The opening phrase was "Rather the ice than their way..." You both knew how the sentence ended: "to take what is mine by single strength, theirs by the crookedness of their law." More often than not, Sanford responded to you opening volley with the completion of the sentence, which he knew well enough given his history with it and the man who wrote it.

You were curious to know why, having read that opening line, Sanford was so vehement in his determination not to read beyond it, so far as you know, a position he held to the end of his days. You, on the other hand, had read through the book that remains more than a book, a direct result of having read as much by its author as you could get your hands on.

Another of his books, Patterson, dog-eared and marked, was in your bedside bookshelf.Patterson is a book length poem to and about the city in New Jersey where its author, William Carlos Williams, practiced medicine for much of his adult life.

Your mentor at UCLA, a man whose essays appeared from time to time in The New Yorker, had known Williams and made him seem necessary to you. John Sanford knew Williams, even thought of him as a mentor. Williams had offered to publish Sanford's first story in a magazine he edited.

Here you were, come around again on Williams, loving the book Sanford could not let himself read, In the American Grain. He could not allow himself to read any farther in this book for fear that it would evoke the powerful feelings so much of Williams writings already had on him, wrestle to the ground the narrative voice Sanford was beginning to hear that told him this is you speaking here; you are no longer being influenced. 

Sanford wished that inner voice to add a line or two to the effect that You will now be able to listen to other voices without losing your own in the din. You are free now to come and go as you will, moving beyond the shoreline, away from beacons and landmarks.

I time, Sanford did find that personal navigation system readers and writers associate with the astronomical equivalent of the North Star, the inner voice by which the writer learns to navigate, moving, degree by degree, farther from the shoreline, into the open sea of the individual writer's curiosity.

The book that became for you what In the American Grain became to John Sanford, was--still is--Thomas McGuane's collection of short stories, To Skin a Cat.  

When you told him this, he laughed nervously, intimating--but not saying in any direct way--that sooner or later, most writers come upon this awareness. "I don't know if I'm doing you a favor or not," he said, ,when he asked you if you'd yet come across the writings of Malie Melloy, then retreated into the protective covering of his deep, infectious chuckle.

One afternoon, while you were sitting at the now defunct Xanadu Coffee Shop, mulling over one universe or another while sipping at a latte, you saw John Sanford, working his way out of the Von's Market pharmacy.  Before you could say, "Rather the ice than their way," he said to you, "Kid, about this blog of yours. Have you ever considered writing it in the second person?"

Sunday, July 17, 2016

How Do You Define Define?

 There are times during classroom situations where you will find yourself telling a group of students that story is not the most important thing in a dramatic narrative. If appropriate, you will go on to say there are only two or three basic story matrices, perhaps as many as four or five. 

You're reminded of this because, as recently as this morning, you found yourself expressing these sentiments in conversation, hoping to seal your argument with the observation, "Most readers don't read for story in the first place."

This caused only a slight lifting in question of an eyebrow. You were quick to fill in the belief that most significant readers, by which you mean at least six books a year, have enough story sense to be able to know what's coming next in any particular dramatic narrative. 

"What then?" your audience asked. "Why do readers read?"

This stopped you in your tracks for a brief moment because you've long been aware of the major reason you took with such enthusiasm to reading.  

You were bored. You wanted if not outright thriller-tale adventure, then at least transportation to a setting or situation where you were transported to another place, another time, or a combination of both. Your pause this morning was to assess the extent this reason had undergone change over the years.

Although these days it is a rare moment in which you find yourself bored, nevertheless the idea of transportation to another time or place still holds up. Of course you add irony as a significant ingredient, coming as it does in waves as an individual, a group of individuals, and indeed an organization or institution will profess to one attitude or goal, then perform in an opposite manner.

You want men and women who are anti-heroic, afflicted with some flaw in exaggerated presence. Least of all do you want ordinary characters, individuals who are tangible in their normality. You don't object to a character wishing for normality or considering him/herself to be normal, that is, so long as their behavior does not come through as normal.

And yet, with all this willingness to set story aside for the quirks of an interesting character, you often find yourself asking, "Where's the story?"  In short, you want your characters to be moving about, doing things, however delusional or self-wounding rather than having long conversations reminiscent of Socratic dialogue. 

You want characters to define themselves through the things they do, the things they avoid, the things they fear or for which they harbor an intense desire.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Are You Certain ?

You're served as a juror enough times and seen sufficient courtroom dramas to be familiar with that idealized state of being free from doubt. To seal the bargain, you've been free of doubt enough times outside the courtroom or, indeed, the courtroom drama to appreciate the glorious extent of being in this state of doubtlessness.


At various times in your life, in particular when navigating the reefs and shoals of puberty and the subsequent years when you felt you'd earned if not experienced doubtlessness, you encountered peers and elders who seemed to have fewer doubt than you, sometimes to an appalling degree.

From your early teens, you had little doubt about your chosen career, only to become beset by doubts as to how you should achieve it, mindful of those about you who were in progress to realizing their careers through some form of study, apprenticeship. 

During those times, additional doubts were beginning to form, related to what you should do and how you should maintain and support yourself should your worst doubts be realized or, failing that, should there be significant delay affecting the point where you realized your career to a tangible degree.

Such doubts and observations related to them may be categorized by a condition no doubt in existence early in the evolution of species that produced homo sapiens, but given a formal entry into the world in 1927 by a German physicist named Werner Heisenberg. 

Although the approach referred to as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle related to the precision with which certain particles could be observed, with relation to their position and momentum, there is no great leap of logic to introduce the question "Observable by whom? " 

The answer, to maintain any meaningful logic, is people.  Heisenberg could have intended the meaning to be less personal, as charted or noted in some mathematical formation, but the aspect of observability has greater relevance for persons than anyone or anything else, even in the case where Heisenberg's Principal stands because it is observable in matter, whether observed by humans or not.

You muddy the scientific waters by bringing the concept of uncertainty into the observations and experiences of humans. In what may be your greatest leap of logic, you observe you and other individuals in various states of uncertainty, then write about them in situ, as it were, where, throughout a series of drafts, you experience varying degrees of uncertainty about the outcome.

Even with your limited perspective of both math and physics, you are able to see that uncertainty has graphable characteristics, in particular position and momentum. A narrative without uncertainty or, to put it another way, a narrative with certainty is arguably not a story. By default,uncertainty is a part of the human condition if not its genome. Story is an attempt to manipulate certainty for a time, giving uncertainty an opportunity to reflect outcome.

Intent is also a factor. You may intend to demonstrate conditions and their momentum or demonstrate an individual such as Sisyphus to demonstrate intent, position, and momentum, which has definite story potential. You may even evoke the surprise of Sisyphus' rock, mashing Sisyphus toe or, indeed, have other unintended consequences in the uncertainty of its certainty.

Ah, there you have it. Uncertainty comes and goes in human affairs in general as it does with a certain repetition in the form of coastal fog during the June and July months here in Santa Barbara.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Twist.

You were well into your tenure at the Professional Writing Program at USC and as the leader of the late night fiction workshop for the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, owned and run by your great pal, Barnaby Conrad. Your classrooms at USC changed from room to room and, in fact, building to building, depending on University whim and, to a degree, on the amount of money via enrollments your department brought in.


As long as the Writers' Conference remained at the fabled, blue-roofed Hotel Miramar, your classroom met in the huge, cavernous basement under the auditorium, beginning at 9 p.m., after the main speaker finished up,often lasting until three or four the following morning.

In addition to the regulars who were enrolled at the Conference, you never knew who would show up to visit, hangout, and in one way or another take part in those long, energetic workshops. Sometimes writer friends, other times students from USC, on occasion editor friends, and on one particular night, when you looked up to see a flinty, graying individual pushing his way through middle age like an eager Christmas shopper the day after Thanksgiving. He wore a rumpled tan suit, a conspicuously awful, heavily patterned tie, and a tan fedora.

Only cops wore fedoras by that time, indeed not Santa Barbara cops, LA cops.  He waved and you stood, thinking to greet him closer at hand.  He waved you to your seat. "Just checking catch you in action," he said.  "You could maybe come down next week, we could have a steak sandwich and a beer or so."

By "coming down," he meant not only L.A, but Taylor's Steak House, on Eighth Avenue between Vermont and Western, where you'd be the one civilian among a horde of LAPD's fines uniforms and suits, referred to variously as Th' (as opposed to the) Librul (as opposed to Liberal) and your respect for the then Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Rose Byrd, was well known.

"I could in fact," you said.

"Well then," he said. 

"Well then," you said. "Tuesday?"

"Tuesday.'  And he was gone.

Someone, curious, said, "Who was that masked man? Obviously a cop."

"Indeed," you said.

Indeed. The number on his LAPD detective's badge was #1. He was John St. John, your cop friend, just as you were his writer friend, the given for him being that a writer would be a liberal if not a pinko. "Every man ought to have a cop friend," he said once at the Code Six, a serious drinking establishment across the street from the Parker Center in downtown LA.  "Every man ought to have a writer friend," you said.

"Finish up," he said, "and I'll show you the latest dump site. Gruesome find. Got to catch that fucker. Leaves his victims in dumpsters."

One of your ongoing topics of discussion with St. John was motive. You, who were struggling with being plausible about writing of murders in the mysteries you hoped to complete, couldn't see why an individual would kill another.

"Mostly jealousy," St. John said. He spoke of men who killed other men because the other men had made moves on their women and the women had been encouraging.  "You kill the source that threatens to take away something of yours. Maybe, in some cases, a man will kill another man to prevent him from telling the world about his secret."

But even more important, one night, when you'd stopped at Taylor's after class, needing a steak sandwich and Molly (a quarter of a head of iceburg lettuce, drenched in blue cheese dressing). "You want to write mystery, you got to find your character's twist. Everyone has a twist."

"Twist?"

"Yeah. A Thing. A Weakness he can't control."

"So if you can control it, it isn't a twist?"

"You could say that," St. John said. "Your twist, you're a Librul."

"What's yours?"

"Who said I had one?"  St. John said.  "Say. If you're not going to finish those French fries--"


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Santa Barbara Sleep

 Bedroom communities are to suburban landscapes what freckles are to skin, splotches of residential areas to which persons commute after working or otherwise spending their time in cities. Santa Barbara reminds you of its status in the bedroom community calculus each time you find yourself southbound during morning or afternoon commuting hours.

In the mornings, a trail of traffic heads north like a platoon of army ants, advancing on some neglected croissant or the remains of a spontaneous picnic, left for the army ants and as well one or more persons heading from their own southern bedroom communities to perform service for the recent revelers. 

From about three in the afternoon until at least six, the road south moves at the next step downward from a snail's pace, which is to say a timid snail's pace.

This is not to claim there is no industry in Santa Barbara. One of its major sources of employment is the renowned Sansum Clinic, where doctors, technicians, and laboratory professionals orbit about yet another type of bedroom community, the two-campus Cottage Hospital. 

Another local draw from regions to the north and south is a campus of the University of California, UCSB, metastasizing as though a stage-IV cancer, lodged in some body part.

People come to the bedroom community that is Santa Barbara as a respite from San Francisco and Los Angeles on the state level, from such eastern hubs as Boston, Washington D.C., and New York, more than likely disenchanted with these hubs and yet still tending to look down on the new Eden of their choice as a 24/7 city wannabe.

People come here to sleep the Santa Barbara sleep, dream the Santa Barbara dreams, think kind thoughts about palm trees, and develop the California tolerance for the ubiquitous jacaranda trees after they have shed their flowery purplish blossom. They will even get behind some of the Spanish pronunciation for such place names as Ray-foo-he-o for Refugio, Santa Enayze for Ynez, and hackarunda (wrong) for jacaranda.

With the exception of the month of June, which attracts a coastal phenomena of overcast known as June gloom, Santa Barbara is often sunny, cheerful, and polite, reflective of the many individuals in service industries who come here to work before going home elsewhere, say Carpinteria or Ventura or Camarillo, to sleep.

Where one sleeps here and with whom (if anyone) are matters you'd expect in a bedroom community, to say nothing of the quality of sleep achieved here, once it is realized.

Your fiction in progress is a rumination on such things, including the latter aspect. Quality seems always an issue of some sort in bedroom communities. Do the persons who come here to escape from urban tangle and the traffic of city irony sleep any better now? 

Your work on this fiction has been interrupted by something that has taken your talk of Santa Barbara Dreams hostage, demanding as ransom the new work.Thus are you in a real sense, a commuter, stuck somewhere past Carpinteria in traffic, attaching to Santa Barbara sleep a mystique of comfort and satisfaction every bit as long and uncertain as the line of traffic before you.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Dramatic Triad: Two's Company, Three's a Story

In the process of revising a suspected repetition in your current longform project, you stumble instead over the roots of a narrative truth you'd lost sight of in the abundant tool kit of narrative truths. 


You refer to the Dramatic Triad, where two individuals may engage in the occasional argument but more often than not have settled into conversation or the kinds of revelatory silences used with such eclat by the late lamented playwright, Harold Pinter.

You've been dealing in recent days with the Dramatic Triad of Mattie Ross, Rooster Cogburn, and the sullen Texas Ranger known as LaBoeuf in Charles Portis' True Grit, and the triad in Allison Lurie's The War between the Tates, Erica, her husband, Brian, and Brian's graduate student, Wendy. 

With a step backward to reflect on the impact of the triad, you reach an immediate recollection of how, even though things were dramatic enough between Huck Finn and the runaway slave, Jim, the appearance on the scene of Huck's old contemporary, Tom Sawyer, immediately cast an unhealthy chemistry over the surroundings. 

In some ways, the reappearance of Tom Sawyer pulls the rug out from what had been a remarkable journey into the midst not only of the human condition but of America at a crucial historical moment.

Additional examples of the Dramatic Triad came to visit you. Frank Chambers, Cora Papadakis, and Cora's husband, Nick, in James M. Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice; and not to forget the narrator, Marlowe, in Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, in concert with Kurtz and Kurtz's finance. You were also reminded of Kate, Merton, and Milly in Henry James' The Wings of the Dove.

There are others, to be not only sure but certain, say Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom in Fitzgerald's memorable The Great Gatsby, and what about Miles Archer, his wife, Iva, and Samuel Spade, edging about the precipitous moral boundaries of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon?

Sometimes you can't see the forest for all the trees, much less can you see the tree for all its subterranean roots.  Nevertheless, try asking during your reading and writing bouts: What does each character bring to the story that would otherwise not have been there? A bit of a stretch, but consider the implications if Claudius had not been the brother to the recently dead King Hamlet.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Horn of Impatience.

Given your present age and such degree of mental acuity as you at the moment have, there would be no surprise if you were to come upon a red signal light, then stop your forward progress, nor would your judgement or behavior be questioned were you to regard a red flag as some form of warning.


In contrary fashion, you can expect to be honked at and indeed have been honked at for failing to respond to a green light, which pretty much signified permission, encouragement, even a mandate to go forth. The culture of which you are a part speaks the language of red for stop or warning, green for go.

Your time spent on this planet and within the cultures you inhabit have also provided you with enough experience to question beyond colors of flags or traffic lights, turning your focus instead on the explanations you are given and, in the spirit of democratic belief, the explanations you give for the events, individuals, and other phenomena you see about you.

In fact, you experiences to date have taught you to question the explanations you give or at least to hold them to a higher degree of rigor even than those you are offered. Arrival at this state is not your way of speaking to your present stage on the pathway of life, which is to say you do not regard yourself as a conservative, cranky old curmudgeon or even a tortoise fan in the ongoing hare-and-tortoise race metaphor. For every individual or convention honking at you to for chrissake observe the freaking green light in front of you, you have yourself pounded the horn of impatience.

Standing between the alert cynicism of the early philosophers and the dispassionate grounding in the moment of many Buddhist sects, the writer need to embrace the present situation, whatever it may be, all the while embracing the reverence for what experience opts to venture forth in front of you.

In your earlier years, you were given to spending your time amassing information of the sort that would allow you to make informed wagers on the outcomes of such things as the turn of a card in a game of chance, the final score in some athletic contest, and even more to the point which of an entire cadre of horses was the fastest.

In the ensuing years, you've entertained a different approach to outcomes, meaning you are content to endure some outcomes while focusing more on those where you have some possible hand in effecting the result. 

At the moment, you're given to investigating on the outcome of factual and fictional narratives as originated and endured by you.  At the moment you question the outcomes of these narratives as though they have a life and agenda of their own, meaning they have a completion date in mind which they may not yet be willing to share with you.

During a time in your past you now regard as bleak, you come upon one novel you'd read in your teens and took to somewhere in your psyche approximating your heart. In later years, you were moved to read another novel by the same author, relieved as you read its pages to be overcome by a sense of foreboding and distaste to the point where, setting the novel aside, you could say in great sincerity that you not only didn;t finish the novel, you did;t have to finish the novel. Nothing, in fact, could emerge tou to reconsider.

To this date, these two books remain close to the top of what has become for you the pyramid of worst books, awful not so much because of their inherent story but because of the ways in which the author employed devices and techniques in the telling of these stories.  The two books were The Fountainhead and atlas Shrugged.  Whenever you find yourself thinking how your own storytelling or essay technique is improving or, to the absolute polarity of degree, not improving, then you find solace in the fact that whatever it was you were driven to write, you were not driven to write either of those two,